Change is not easy.
Missouri just made it look that way.
You might know the story by now. The change that helped spur Gary Pinkel’s successful 15-year run at Mizzou began in the home of his offensive coordinator, four years into Pinkel’s tenure at the school. More specifically, it began in Dave Christensen’s basement in December 2004.
Well, it really began on Christensen’s couch, in his basement, while he wore sweats and watched three television sets, each showing a different college football game.
That’s where a coaching staff, on the brink of being fired after some ho-hum seasons with a stagnant offense, began to change.
“I sat in my basement and watched every bowl game,” Christensen said. “I said to my wife, ‘If we don’t change, we’re going to lose our jobs.’ ”
“Go talk to Coach Pinkel,” Susie Christensen told her husband.
“He’s not going to change,” Dave responded.
“If you don’t, you’re going to lose your job,” she said. “Go talk to him!”
Dave listened to his wife, and Missouri changed everything that offseason. The offensive staff dumped its playbook and started a new one, moving from an I-formation, ground-and-pound scheme to, what was then, the new fad in college football: the pass-happy, shotgun-based spread.
Three years later, the Tigers were ranked No. 1 in the nation and played for the Big 12 championship. They finished that year 12-2.
“We had to make a change,” Christensen said. “We knew that. We knew we wouldn’t be there if we didn’t.”
They’re calling for change in Baton Rouge. They’ve been calling for it, clamoring and stomping, yelling and screaming, for coach Les Miles to change LSU’s offense from the old-school, run-heavy attack that has won him 76 percent of his games in 11 years with the Tigers.
That season-opening loss to Wisconsin last weekend in Green Bay only increased the volume.
The call for change is louder than it has ever been under Miles — and more public. You might hear it during the home opener against Jacksonville State at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Tiger Stadium.
The call for change isn’t just bellowing from Bourbon-filled bars or sizzling off fiery message boards. It’s seeping out of the LSU athletics administration building.
At the end of a drama-filled November, Miles promised change to his boss, athletic director Joe Alleva. At the beginning of the 2016 season, Miles delivered to his boss a sloppy passing game with an erratic quarterback, a receiver who dropped several passes and an offense that didn’t crack the 260-yard mark.
The Tigers passed for 131 yards in their 16-14 loss to the Badgers, continuing an unsettling trend. LSU has been held under 150 passing yards in 15 of its past 27 games, a startling figure for this period of high-scoring college football.
Another stunning statistic: LSU has averaged 169.3 passing yards per game over the past two seasons, including the season opener. That's fewer during than all but two "Power Five" conference teams (Boston College and Georgia Tech).
Just once in the past eight seasons has LSU's passing offense finished in the top 70.
Exacerbating the problem last week was that the Tigers lost. They’re 11-9 in their past 20 games against major conference foes.
“It’s hard for guys to change, but you’ve got to look at the big picture,” Christensen said. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again. I’m not here to critique Les Miles. I think he’s tremendous. I just don’t think they’re doing anything different than they did last year.”
The question begs: What’s wrong with LSU’s passing offense?
Several former offensive coaches, players and analysts said it’s two-fold. First, LSU’s antiquated scheme is being passed up by the rest of college football. Second, its quarterbacks are not developed and/or don’t fit in the system.
"They obviously are old-school," said Rick Neuheisel, the former Washington and UCLA coach-turned-analyst. "They believe in coming downhill and winning at the line of scrimmage. That’s Les’ background. This is a guy who believes in establishing the line of scrimmage.
"They’ve done that, done it as well as anybody. What has to happen is they’ve got to find ways to get (quarterback) Brandon Harris to be more of the piece of the offense rather than a guy who needs to make plays on third down."
‘We were going to get run off’
Mike White flew all the way from San Francisco to Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
This was the 1960s. It wasn’t cheap and it wasn’t quick, but White did it for an important reason: He didn’t want to get fired.
In 1968, White worked for Stanford head coach Jon Ralston as offensive coordinator. The Cardinal, then nicknamed the Indians, went 5-5 in 1966 and 5-5 in 1967, Ralston’s fourth and fifth years at the school. The staff was one more mediocre season away from getting fired.
“We were trying to run that same system (that LSU currently runs) on the West Coast. We had no chance against Southern Cal and UCLA and Washington,” White said. “Our head coach decided the only way we were going to bail ourselves out was to change our entire philosophy of offense and go to a passing game. John sent me to Alabama to see what Alabama was doing so well with the passing game. We were trying to find out what it was. We were going to get run off.”
That spring, the Stanford coaching staff moved a player named Jim Plunkett from defensive end to quarterback, and the coaches implemented a quick-hit passing game now referred to as the West Coast offense. Three years later, Stanford beat Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and finished 9-3.
Tales about coaches overhauling their offense are as old as the game itself. Some, like White and Christensen, did it to keep their jobs. They were coaches at mid-tier programs who, with relatively limited talent, needed to use a unique scheme to knock off the big boys. They were successful.
Others, like Tommy Tuberville and Jackie Sherrill, did it to keep their jobs, too. They were not so successful. Tuberville’s switch from ground and pound at Auburn to the Air Raid offense resulted in his firing in 2008. Sherrill’s move from a pro-style scheme at Mississippi State to a West Coast system resulted in his forced resignation in 2003.
But there are others, like Nick Saban at Alabama and Gary Patterson at TCU. They did it to improve their teams, ESPN analyst Dan Hawkins said.
“They were defensive coaches who finally just said, ‘Hey, you know what? This no-huddle, spread-it-out, going faster … it’s tough to defend,’ ” said Hawkins, the former head coach at Colorado and Boise State. “I give those defensive head coaches, a lot of credit. Gary Patterson said, ‘I had to get used to it. It’s a whole different way of practicing.’ It’s trying to win games 45-35 instead of 10-3, you know?”
‘You can win with this system’
Most programs in college football are moving toward more passing. Miles’ offense has moved in the opposite direction.
In his first five seasons at LSU, the Tigers were, by a wide margin, more balanced (57 percent run to 43 percent pass) than they have been in the past six years (64 percent 36 to percent).
The coach, though, has passed the ball when he has the right tools. In his second season at Oklahoma State in 2002, Miles’ offense threw the ball more than it ran by a 51-49 split. At quarterback that year: Josh Fields.
In his second year at LSU, the Tigers were 55-45 run — their most balanced season under Miles. At quarterback that year: JaMarcus Russell.
Miles has not had the tools lately, and the college football world is aware.
“If they got even average production from the quarterback position, they’d be more than OK,” said Trevor Matich, a first-round NFL draft pick at center out of BYU in 1985 and now a color analyst on ESPN. “It’s a matter of production from the quarterback position.
“The thing about the system LSU runs … I’ve heard it described as antiquated, as passé — things like that,” Matich continued. “I totally disagree with that. You can win with this system. I don’t agree with the people calling for a change in the system as the fix to the problem. If you change the system, you still have the same problem if you don’t have a quarterback that can run the (new) system.”
Zach Mettenberger ran this same system in 2013, as a senior, to the tune of 251 passing yards a game, fourth all-time on LSU’s single-season list. The Tigers passed for 3,263 yards that year, third-most in school history. Mettenberger was a senior who had graduated and was enrolled in just one class that fall. He was also throwing passes to Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, a pair of stars now shining in the NFL.
That 2013 season opened the Cam Cameron era at LSU. He's a close friend to Miles and a former NFL offensive coordinator lauded in the professional ranks.
One college coach said he’s unsure “who’s got all their hands on the controls” of the Tigers offense. Is it Cameron, or is it Miles? If it’s both, how is the work split? Cameron has never publicly commented on Miles’ role in the offense.
Miles, a former offensive lineman and offensive assistant, is often seen holding a play sheet. At least one former player said Miles’ influence on the offense is substantial. The ex-player, who wished to remain anonymous, said Miles often changes play calls or calls plays in significant games and, more specifically, when LSU enters the red zone.
"Les is an O-line coach. O-line coaches are built to run it,” Hawkins said. “It’s the old Bill Snyder method. You hang around, hang around and wait for the other guy to shoot himself in the foot, and you win the game. The old adage of ‘It’s OK to punt.’ It’s hard to bust out of that mentality because you put yourself at risk.”
LSU is far from the only team in the nation that uses a fullback, lines up in the I-formation or employs two tight ends.
“When have you heard someone say, ‘The Stanford offense is antiquated'?” Matich asked. “Who’s saying, ‘Michigan will never with the Big Ten under (Jim) Harbaugh unless they get up to speed with the modern offense’?”
Michigan State’s base offense is similar to that of LSU. The Spartans have been one of the most successful programs in college football over the past few years, finishing in the nation's top six in each of the past three seasons. Not only that, but they've also finished in the top 55 for passing offense five of the past seven seasons.
There are others schools, even in the Southeastern Conference: Arkansas and Alabama.
“There’s all this talk about how Alabama has got up to some modern standard, whatever the heck that is,” Matich said. “The core of Alabama’s offense, when they won the national championship, was still the old-style, old-school, smash ball into a phone booth with a quarterback to make the right decisions.”
‘Monumentally less learning’
Cameron’s pro-style scheme isn’t the easiest to learn, the coordinator admitted last summer.
In 2014, Anthony Jennings, a second-year player, and current starter Brandon Harris, then a first-year player, struggled to grasp the NFL-style playbook. Cameron simplified it heading into 2015.
The results never really showed on the field. LSU went from 116th in passing with Jennings starting to 106th with Harris running the show.
“In some ways, it’s more difficult for a quarterback to execute well because it’s a pro-style system requiring a quarterback to decode a defense, to know more about what a defense is doing than a typical college system we’re seeing today,” Matich said.
Spread and run-pass option offenses are “monumentally less learning” for a quarterback than a pro-style scheme, Hawkins said.
A quarterback in a normal pro-style system is asked to make a host of decisions before the snap. His duties form a checklist, Hawkins said. Typically, a play call comes in as a three-play package: run left, run right or throw. The quarterback must read the defense to determine one of the three plays. Sometimes, there’s an audible, Hawkins said.
“Sometimes you identify the front and get your linemen blocking in the right direction, and then you’re looking at the coverage,” Hawkins said. “If it’s this, you’re going over here. And if it’s that, you’re going over there.”
In a typical college spread offense, the pre-snap reads are relegated to one defender, Matich and Hawkins said.
“You look at that guy. You don’t have to teach him fronts and coverages and strengths and weaknesses, who’s the ‘hot’ and the ‘sight,’ ” Hawkins said.
“We didn’t put anything on our quarterback at Missouri,” said Christensen, who's currently out of coaching and living in Arizona. “We never checked a play. My philosophy was, 'We’re going to run a play, run them fast and we’re going to make you adjust to us. We’re not adjusting to you.' ”
Norm Chow, 70, spent the past 45 years coaching offensive football. He has been a position coach for receivers, running backs and quarterbacks and was offensive coordinator for Southern Cal, UCLA, Utah and the Tennessee Titans.
He’s a fan of Miles and Cameron, but he knows what direction — and why — college football is heading.
“When you spread them all over the field, people have to account for everybody. They have to declare,” Chow said. “You’re taking it to them, not them taking it to you as is the case sometimes when you load up.”
So what now?
No one seems to agree on the next step for LSU’s offense.
There’s no changing the offense midseason to help Harris, Matich insisted.
“You can add into it, the rollouts and things like that,” he said, “but I’m sure that’s in there for him.”
Todd McShay, an ESPN analyst, said the Tigers need to feed running back Leonard Fournette more. He said they didn’t do it enough against Wisconsin. Neuheisel said they should throw it more to allow Harris to find a rhythm.
“I am of the mind that, ultimately, to change their fortunes, they need to get him more confidence,” Neuheisel said. “The way to do that is to get the quarterback into a rhythm. They’re hellbent on establishing Leonard Fournette.”
Fournette is the key and should be the centerpiece of LSU’s offense, Matich said, but his opportunities are diminished because of the passing game’s woes. Teams are "loading the box," stacking the area near the line of scrimmage, like Arkansas and Alabama did last season to slow the Tigers' Heisman Trophy hopeful. They give little thought to the pass.
On Fournette's 23 carries, Wisconsin averaged 8.08 players in the box. The Badgers put at least eight men in the box, at the snap, on 19 of those carries.
“All you have to be at LSU is average consistency and average predictability for the playcaller to have all kinds of options to maximize Leonard Fournette,” Matich said. “But without that from the quarterback, that big, giant opportunity turns into a small one.”
Most former offensive coaches interviewed for this story called for offensive change or, at least, suggested it.
“You’ve got to make an adjustment to get the best out of that running back so people don’t beat him up,” said White, now 80 years old and retired in California. “It’s a commitment to the philosophy to putting the ball in the air intelligently.”
Miles indicated throughout the offseason that LSU’s offense would be different this year — and it still might. The Tigers have played just once, running just 50 plays against the Badgers. The Tigers had more in store offensively, if they just were able to extend drives and run more plays, the coach said Wednesday during his radio show.
Cameron and Miles have flashed spread formations over the past several years, even installing a zone-read package with Jennings before a 2014 win over Texas A&M. He ran for 119 yards in that game.
Miles, though, isn’t wavering too far from his kind of football.
“(I) would like to see some more spread sets, but we're awfully productive in traditional sets,” he said Wednesday, four days after his offense scored one touchdown in the season opener.
“He’s not going to stick his head in the sand and act like there’s nothing going on,” Neuheisel said when asked about Miles changing the offense this season. “They already said they were going to change what they’re doing in the (press) box. Cam is going back to the booth, right?
“He’s willing to make adjustments. I think he gets stuck in the Michigan stubbornness, but he’s got a national championship, so who am I to question him?”
Pass or run?
Under Les Miles, LSU has run the football at least 60 percent of the time since the 2010 season.
Year: Run/Pass ratio … Record
2015: 65/35 … 9-3
2014: 69/31 … 8-5
2013: 62/38 … 10-3
2012: 60/40 … 10-3
2011: 68/32 … 13-1
2010: 64/36 … 11-2
2009: 56/44 … 9-4
2008: 56/44 … 8-5
2007: 58/42 … 12-2
2006: 55/45 … 11-2
2005: 59/41 … 11-2
(Miles at Oklahoma State)
2004: 75/25 … 7-5
2003: 60/40 … 9-4
2002: 49/51 … 8-5
2001: 51/49 … 4-7
The offense under Miles
Just once in the past eight seasons has LSU's passing offense finished in the nation's top 70:
Year: Total offense (pass/run)
2005: 60th (55th, 52nd) #
2006: 11th (18th, 31st) #
2007: 60th (55th, 52nd) ^
2008: 55th (71st, 43rd) ^
2009: 112th (97th/90th) ^
2010: 86th (107th/27th) ^
2011: 86th (106th/22nd) &
2012: 87th (94th/52nd) &
2013: 35th (45th/29th) *
2014: 80th (116th/25th) *
2015: 39th (106th/7th) *
# Jimbo Fisher as offensive coordinator
^ Gary Crowton as offensive coordinator
& Greg Studrawa as offensive coordinator
* Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator